New Chinese virus sparks fears of Contagion-like scenario

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The recent outbreak of a novel strain of coronavirus in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province in central China, has sparked concerns around the world.

There are fears among some quarters that the scenario depicted in the 2011 movie Contagion starring Matt Damon and Marion Cotillard may become a reality, and the outbreak of 2019-nCoV (also known as Wuhan Flu) in Hubei may well be our worst nightmare come true. In actual fact, the world came quite close to such a scenario eight years prior to the theatrical release of Contagion.

Exactly seventeen years ago, a previously-unknown strain of viral pneumonia made its rounds globally after originating in southern China. The disease was traced to a new strain of coronavirus that had its origin in horseshoe bats and jumped species eventually to humans. It was eventually given the name Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The world was literally caught on the back foot as SARS spread globally mainly due to unsuspecting air travellers carrying the virus back to their own countries. Many of them later fell ill, and a number of them passed on. In the meantime, they managed to infect their loved ones as well as healthcare workers who had close contact with them. Several countries were hit badly and the global tourism industry took a bit hit. This, along with the Iraq war, caused a bleak economic outlook for the year 2003.

The SARS epidemic lasted over a year. No further infections were documented after May 2004. It was only in 2017 that horseshoe bats living in a cave in China’s southern Yunnan Province were reservoirs for the SARS coronavirus. The traumatic events of the SARS outbreak imparted many lessons to affected countries. Altogether, 8273 cases were documented worldwide, with 775 direct fatalities. The movie Contagion was subsequently released, causing speculation over the plausibility of the scenario depicted. A year after Contagion hit the screens, Muslims returning from pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia began reporting sick with SARS-like symptoms. Tests revealed that they had fallen victim to a new strain of coronavirus that had spread to humans from camels, who were in turn, infected by Egyptian tomb bats. This new disease was given the name Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Further outbreaks were reported in 2015 and 2018. Most cases were obviously from the Middle East region, but South Korea was also badly affected. The fatality rate for MERS is at 38%. Twenty-seven countries have documented cases of MERS.

The world was landed another blow when a new strain of pneumonia started surfacing in the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province late in 2019. The first patient was believed to have contracted the disease from the city’s Huanan Seafood Market, where exotic animals were sold for consumption. By mid-January, the virus had spread to several Chinese provinces as people travelled back to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year holiday. Due to the severity of the outbreak, Wuhan was placed on lockdown and all outgoing flights were grounded and no unauthorised personnel allowed into the region. Other countries also began reporting the presence of Wuhan virus within their borders, the patients mostly Chinese nationals from Hubei or who had contact with someone from the epicentre. The Chinese authorities adopted a cautious approach to the disease in the hope of not causing unnecessary alarm. In the spirit of things, they prosecuted a medical doctor, Li Wenliang for propagating fake news after he warned about the novel strain of virus that was wreaking havoc in his city. However, as the severity of the epidemic became more obvious, the country’s judiciary decided that Dr Li had no case to answer after all. However, he has since tragically succumbed to the virus. The tight-lipped manner that Beijing handled this crisis was meant to prevent unnecessary panic, but it appeared that the opposite was true.

In addition, health experts have said that the Wuhan virus was an outbreak waiting to happen. The Huanan market, where the first cluster of patients originated from, sold live animals for human consumption. The SARS outbreak of 2003 had similar origins. People at the market were in close contact with wildlife, which meant that the risk of zoonotic diseases corssing over to humans was extremely high. Following the virus outbreak, the market was closed for disinfection. There is also a Level 4 virus laboratory located in the city, which gave rise to the conspiracy theory that the institute was the real source of the Wuhan virus. This was debunked by the Washington Post in a piece titled “Experts debunk fringe theory linking China’s coronavirus to weapons research“.

Although several hundreds of people have succumbed to the Wuhan virus, its fatality rate is still relatively low. Globally, more people have actually died from the flu. The victims of Wuhan virus were mostly those whose immune systems were already compromised to begin with. Experts are currently working on a vaccine and governments around the world are urging citizens to observe good hygiene at all times. Anyone who is feeling unwell should put on a surgical mask and consult a doctor as soon as possible. Contact with persons showing signs of respiratory ailments should be avoided. Infections have continued to increase, with confirmed cases among several local people in a number of Asian countries popular with Chinese tourists. In Singapore alone, there have been at least seven cases not linked to Hubei. Four involved a medical hall visited by tourists from Guangxi, China. Given the sudden spike in patients, Singaporean authorities have raised the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) code from yellow to orange, the second highest level. This has sparked widespread panic among citizens who have started stockpiling essential supplies as if the apocalypse is upon them. It is safe to say that they are dealing with a situation not unlike what was depicted in the film Contagion.

In Australia, the Wuhan virus has resulted in racism against people of Chinese descent rearing its ugly head. It has also taken its toll on the nation’s economy as there are now fewer tourists. On top of that, student enrolments at several universities have dropped due to Chinese students being forced to defer their studies due to the ban on Chinese nationals entering Australia. Several other countries have instituted a similar ban in order to protect citizens from being infected. Although harsh, it is a necessary measure. If there is anybody to blame, it has to be the Chinese government for their initial response to the epidemic. They had underestimated the severity of the virus, inadvertently helping it to spread. Being tight-lipped about the problem meant few citizens took it seriously, thus failing to protect themselves adequately. Many countries have also evacuated their citizens out of Wuhan after the city was locked down. Several people were found to have been infected while they were placed in quarantine post-evacuation.

In a shock to the medical world, a newborn baby tested positive for the virus after being delivered from the womb of an infected woman. This raises the frightening possibility that it could be transmitted from an expectant mother to her unborn child. While it is good to know, this does nothing to assuage the minds of a public already on edge. It is thus important that people refrain from spreading rumours about the disease as doing so only causes unnecessary panic.

With everything being said, we should allow medical professionals to do their job. These people are putting their own lives at risk to stop the spread of the disease and their efforts are commendable. Dr Li’s demise is undoubtedly unfortunate, and his sacrifice should not be in vain. Health experts are working on a vaccine, while China managed to build not one but two specialised hospitals to treat the Wuhan virus. In the meantime, all we have to do is not panic, observe proper hygiene and see a doctor at the first sign of trouble. Hopefully Contagion would remain, at the very best, a work of fiction rather than an eerie prophecy about our future. What we need is for Chinese nationals to stop eating endangered wildlife that might be carriers of exotic diseases. Otherwise, history could repeat itself with similarly lethal consequences.